A brief overview of Beethoven’s late quartets

Today, March 21, is the 192nd anniversary of the premiere of the Grosse Fuge.

According to Benjamin P. Hardy writing on Medium, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote five of the fifty greatest pieces of music ever created. “But in order to create those,” Beethoven wrote 650 “songs” which apparently are chopped liver in the estimation of the psychologist and motivational speaker. Hardy advises people that in order to become “brilliant at creativity and relationships,” they should “focus on quantity in the beginning.” Yeah… that’s kind of good advice but it needs lots of caveats.

What are “the 50 greatest pieces of music ever created”? If Hardy used the London Philharmonic’s The 50 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music, that might mean he thinks these five are the only Beethoven pieces worth listening to:

  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Just the first movement. No surprise here.
  • Bagatelle in A minor, “Für Elise,” WoO 59. That’s right, a piece the composer himself designated a “bagatelle.”
  • Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125. But just the Ode to Joy.
  • Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, “Moonlight,” just the Adagio.
  • Egmont Overture. This one is a bit of a surprise to me.

Aside from “Für Elise,” these are all excerpts from much longer works.

I don’t pretend to know Beethoven’s entire œuvre. But I do know enough pieces of his, which, if played often enough under the right circumstances, would be propelled to greatest hit status, and people would think those pieces had always been considered greatest hits.

Beethoven’s contemporaries would of course be surprised that his Septet in E-flat major, Opus 20, has been mostly forgotten. It has a decent number of recordings, but nowhere near as many as his First Symphony, which was premiered on the same concert.

When it comes to the string quartet, Beethoven seemed to be following the advice of concentrating on quantity at first, at first anyway. He wrote the six Quartets of Opus 18 in a relatively short period of time, mostly in 1799. Then almost six years passed before the three Rasumowsky Quartets, Opus 59, and then two “middle” quartets were published in 1810.

So maybe Beethoven should have written only one last quartet after 1820, and it would have been so great that caprice would accord it a place among the 50 greatest “songs” of classical music. Instead Beethoven wrote five more quartets, starting in 1823 and publishing them in 1826, the last full calendar year he lived.

Stravinsky famously said that Beethoven’s late quartets are eternally modern. I have to admit that except for the Große Fuge, my knowledge of the late quartets is very shallow.

There are at least a couple of very affordable ways to remedy this deficiency. The Big Beethoven Box, for one, includes a lot of the obvious Beethoven compositions (e.g., the Fifth Symphony) but also a very decent selection of late Quartets, in wiry performances by the Yale Quartet.

And the Colorado String Quartet, all Beethoven Quartets for 99¢!? That’s an unbeatable deal. I do have a lot of questions about who exactly the Colorado String Quartet are, like maybe not the four women of the recently disbanded Colorado Quartet from New York?

But don’t let questions like that hold you up from plunking down a dollar before this deal goes away. If you don’t already have all Beethoven’s String Quartets in your collection, buy this one right away, then download the tracks at your leisure. So far I have downloaded all the late Quartets and the two “late middle.” Eventually I’ll get around to the Rasumovsky quarter dozen and the Opus 18 half dozen.

The first three late Quartets were commissioned by Prince Galitzin, a Russian aristocrat who was apparently quite a decent cellist. The first of the commission pieces, the String Quartet in E-flat major, Opus 127 is becoming a new favorite of mine.

The Maestoso introduction is very simple but also very effective, a real attention-grabber. It starts with a chord of seven notes for the four instruments for three pitch-classes. I’m guessing that chord is to be played with a vigorous down bow. But Beethoven doesn’t need to write in the down bow symbols; the double stops (except for the second violin) are enough to indicate to the players that a strong down bow is required. This introduction is just a few measures long before switching to tempo Allegro, perhaps a surprise for someone expecting a 2- or 3-minute introduction like in the Fourth Symphony.

Still, at a superficial level, Opus 127 is quite conventional, with four movements like pretty much all Beethoven’s prior Quartets. Still, Prince Galitzin was a little puzzled, as he expected something more along the lines of the Opus 18 Quartets.

I’m familiar with the String Quartet in B-flat major, Opus 130 mostly because of the Große Fuge, Opus 133, that was originally its finale. It seems that it was conceived as consisting of six movements from the very beginning, contrasting a fairly lengthy first movement and finale with some much shorter movements in between, like the 2-minute Presto that follows the first movement. And so Opus 130 is sometimes called “a mad Divertimento.” Not surprisingly, at the premiere, the fourth movement Alla danza tedesca and the fifth movement Cavatina were received much better than the Große Fuge.

The usually stubborn Beethoven agreed too quickly that it wasn’t an appropriate finale for Opus 130, and wrote a new finale that is perhaps easier for listeners, but hardly any less technically demanding than the Große Fuge. For roughly a century after Beethoven’s death, musicians argued over whether or not they should play Opus 130 with the Große Fuge or with the substitute finale. After World War II, the general opinion seemed to swing in favor of the Große Fuge.

Now, thanks to CDs, and even more so with MP3s and other digital audio formats, it’s easy for individual listeners to decide how they want to hear Opus 130. Naturally most recordings include the Große Fuge with Opus 130, like the Cleveland Quartet’s, which was the first and for a long time the only recording of the piece in my collection. Then, if you like, you can have your CD player (or, more likely these days, iTunes) skip the concluding rondo and go on to the Große Fuge.

The Große Fuge is certainly difficult music for the players, and I doubt there are many amateur quartets that would dare play it in public. According to Harold Truscott, any quartet player who thinks the substitute finale is easier that the Große Fuge is not ready to play either.

But there is also the perception that it is difficult music to listen to. I’ve never thought that, but then again I’m the kind of person who gets a real kick of John Williams’s music for the Battle of Hoth. But if you follow along with the score of the Große Fuge, you might feel some of the stress that players feel. You might get the impression that Beethoven uses every available note of each of the instruments, like the highest notes the cello can play. The cellist has to deal with three different clefs (treble with octave transposition, and tenor in addition to the usual bass clef). When the cello comes in on a really high note, it might not sound different enough from a violin or a viola, depending on the audio quality, and next thing you know you’ve fallen behind or have gotten too far ahead.

One interesting exception to this issue of track pairing is Peter Oundjian’s string orchestra arrangement for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Instead of bundling it with a string orchestra arrangement of the Opus 130, on the BIS label recording it follows Oundjian’s string orchestra arrangement of the String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131.

You may have missed a movie with Christopher Walken, A Late Quartet, also starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. The soundtrack of that movie is essentially Opus 131, augmented judiciously with music by Angelo Badalamenti. Paul (Walken) is the founder of the Fugue quartet, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As his symptoms become more obvious, Paul realizes that he won’t be able to stay in the quartet he founded for too much longer. The younger players of the quartet don’t necessarily like the idea of simply replacing Paul with a cellist their age. The whole quartet might fall apart.

For one thing, the second violinist, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last rôles) and the violist Juliette (Catherine Keener) are a married couple but they’ve fallen out of love. Their daughter Alex (Imogen Poots), a possible rising star of the violin, gets into a sexual relationship with her mentor, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the first violinist of the Fugue.

One thing the movie gets wrong is this thing about first and second violins. Robert wants to play first violin, maybe not all the time, but sometimes, as if the first violin is more prestigious or something (and maybe it is to those who don’t know better). Especially in late Beethoven the second violin part is no less technically demanding than the first violin part. Looking just at the second violin part of Opus 131, it’s easy to get the impression that the second violin is mostly just supporting the first violin. But looking at the full score, you get a different perspective: often, especially in the opening fugue, the first violin supports the second violin. Maybe on another occasion I will talk more about first and second violin in general.

Opus 131 is in seven movements, with an Allegro moderato third movement of barely a minute preceding a 13-minute Andante ma non troppo. Beethoven was growing more concerned with simultaneously contrasting consecutive movements and linking them together. Notice how the end of the sixth movement Adagio quasi un poco andante leads right into the Allegro finale. The seventh movement worries Paul that he’s not going to be able to keep up with his younger colleagues. But I suppose I should put a spoiler warning on that statement.

Looking only at the key signatures, the String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132 alternates between A minor and A major. In A minor, Beethoven presents a somewhat understated version of his typical C minor mood. At times I’m reminded of Michael Haydn’s String Quartet in A major, mainly in the A major movements. Though in five movements, Opus 132 feels more conventional than either Opus 130 or Opus 131.

The finale of Opus 132 could become very popular. Here is one way that could happen: if music coordinators for TV and movies decided to use it every time they felt compelled to use “Für Elise.” If a piano sonority is needed, arrangement would be a simple matter, especially since it would just be the one or two minutes needed for the movie or TV show episode.

I don’t have much to say about String Quartet in F major, Opus 135 yet. I’ve listened to the Colorado String Quartet recording a few times now, and it’s a nice piece of music that holds my attention throughout. I’m not familiar enough with it to say anything other than that I don’t get the impression at all that Beethoven thought this would be his last String Quartet ever. But then again, maybe it wouldn’t be too different if he had thought that.

Harold Truscott, in his book about the late Quartets, goes so far as to say that Opus 135 was the beginning of Beethoven’s fourth period. If Beethoven had lived just a few more years, maybe we would indeed have seen a clearer demarcation between his third and fourth periods.

There you have it, a brief overview. An entire book could be written about these, and indeed entire books have been written. But hopefully this is long enough to let you know about a late Beethoven Quartet that could become a new favorite of yours.

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